The Science Behind Our Programs

Guided Visualization and Molecules of “Emotion”

We have summarized the multiple studies showing the positive effects that guided visualization can have on the health of the body, including stress-related disorders, depression, immune system, cancer, among others. Women’s health from the stand-point of regulating menstrual cycles have been studied. In independent studies, overall stress has been shown to negatively influence fertility (click here for the several studies we have listed on the stress-fertility connection).

Over the past few decades the effectiveness of guided imagery / visualization has been established by research findings that demonstrate its positive impact on health, creativity, and performance. We know that just ten minutes of imagery can reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol, inducing the “Relaxation Response,” as outlined in the groundbreaking book by Herbert Benson M.D. It can reduce blood loss during surgery and postoperative morphine use. It can lessen headaches and pain. It accelerates weight loss and reduces anxiety; and it has been shown, again and again, to reduce the adverse effects of chemotherapy, especially nausea, depression, and fatigue.

Guided visualization had also been found to be very effective for the treatment of stress, which has been shown in various studies to have an overall negative affect on fertility. Imagery is at the center of relaxation techniques designed to release brain chemicals that act as your body’s natural brain tranquilizers, lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety levels. By and large, researchers find that these techniques work. Because visualization and body scanning relaxes the body, doctors specializing in visualization often recommend it for stress-related conditions such as headaches, chronic pain in the neck and back, high blood pressure, spastic colon, and cramping from premenstrual syndrome.

The cellular response of the mind-body connection was discovered by Candace Pert, Chief of Brain Biochemistry in the Clinical Neuroscience Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health – and author of Molecules of Emotion. Pert played a major role in the discover of the opiate receptor found on cellular membranes – or the walls surrounding the cell. As summarized by Dr. Ernest Rossi in the book Mind-Body Therapy, “a basic form of biological communication occurs via the release of information substances by nerves, organs, or tissue in one part of the boy, which are received by “mailbox” receptors in the cell walls or nerves, organs or tissues by another part of the body. Once a cell wall receptor has been “activated,” it turns on other “secondary messenger systems” within the cell to carry out the characteristic metabolic activities of the cell: nerve cells produce neurotransmitters for neural conductance; endocrine cells produce hormones; muscle cell initiate the biomechanical process of contraction, and so forth.”

The Scientific Studies Surrounding Guided Visualization

Note: This list is not meant to exhaustive or encompass all of the studies completed in this area, nor is it meant to identify those studies that have been “accepted” by the scientific community.

Visualization can help alter menstrual cycles and relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. In a preliminary study, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found that 12 of 15 women, ages 21 to 40, who used imagery for three months lengthened their monthly menstrual cycles by an average of nearly four days and slashed their perceived levels of premenstrual distress in half. They also reported fewer mood swings.

Researchers at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio found that people with cancer who used imagery while receiving chemotherapy felt more relaxed, better prepared for their treatment and more positive about care than those who didn’t use the technique. In addition, a similar study was done at the Medical Illness Counseling Center in Maryland, applying guided imagery to chemotherapy treatment. The results, published by Will Stapp in Medical Self-Care in 1988, indicated that guided imagery stimulated white blood cells to multiply to fight cancer cells.

Carl Simonton M.D., who was director of the Cancer Counseling and Research Center in Dallas, Texas, compared the effects of guided visualization used in conjunction with conventional medical treatment for cancer to the effects of medical treatment alone. Over a four-year period, he studied a group of 159 patients with medically incurable malignancies, who practiced guided imagery along with their prescribed medical treatment. At the time the study was published, the still-living patients who practiced guided visualization had survived, on average, two times longer than patients who received medical treatment alone. Even the patients who had died lived one-and-one-half times longer than those in the control group.

Several studies suggest that imagery can also boost your immunity. Danish researchers found increased natural killer cell activity among ten college students who imagined that their immune systems were becoming very effective. Natural killer cells are an important part of the immune system because they can recognize and destroy virus-infected cells, tumor cells and other invaders.

As published in the book “Medusa and the Snail” by Dr. Lewis Thomas, the use of guided visualization – or hypnotherapy – was used to eliminate warts on the skin.

At the University of South Florida in Tampa, researchers asked 19 men and women, ages 56 to 75, who had chronic bronchitis and emphysema to rate their levels of anxiety, depression, fatigue and discomfort before and after they began using imagery. The researchers concluded that imagery significantly improved the overall quality of these people’s lives.

A study at Yale demonstrated that patients suffering from severe depression were helped by imagining scenes in which they were praised by people they admired- a clear boost to their self-esteem.

Visualization and other relaxation methods may produce significant benefits, often by helping to ease pain and lift depression. Research is continuing to determine whether even more spectacular results can be achieved.

A controlled study of fifty-five women examined the effects of imagery and relaxation on breast milk production in mothers of infants in a neonatal intensive care unit. They received a twenty-minute audiotape of progressive relaxation followed by guided imagery of pleasant surroundings, milk flowing in the breasts, and the baby’s warm skin against theirs. They produced more than twice as much milk as compared to those receiving only routine care.

In another study, a group of metastatic cancer patients using daily imagery for a year achieved significant improvements in NK cell activity and several other measures of immune functioning.

At Michigan State University, researchers found that students could use guided imagery to improve the functioning of certain white cells called neutrophils, important immune cells in defense against bacterial and fungal infection. They could also decrease, but not increase, white cell counts. At one point in the study, a form of imagery intended to increase neutrophil count unexpectedly caused a drop instead. Subsequently, students were taught imagery explicitly intended to keep the neutrophil count steady, while increasing their effectiveness. Both of these goals were achieved.

James Halper at Lenox Hill Hospital studied the effect of guided imagery on asthma patients, and showed that although imagery did not decrease measurable asthma symptoms, significantly more patients were able to discontinue their medication. Not surprisingly, he also found significantly less depression and anxiety in the guided imagery group than in the control group. (Halper, L. Alternative Health Practitioner: The Journal of Complementary and Natural Care, vol.3(3), Fall/ Winter, 1997)

Henry Dreher demonstrated in three metaanalyses that preoperative mind-body interventions have been proven consistently effective in improving postoperative medical and psychological outcomes. In the largest metaanalyses (191 studies with more than 8,600 patients) psychosocial/behavioral interventions showed improved recovery, pain reduction, and reduced psychological stress. Length of hospital stay was decreased an average of 1.5 days. These studies have shown reduced blood loss and postoperative pain, and improved wound healing, and speed of recovery. (Tusek, DL et al: Guided Imagery: A Significant Advance in The Care of Patients Undergoing Elective Colorectal Surgery. Dis Colon Rectum, 1997; 40:172-178)

A study by Fawzy Fawzy, MD on the effects of imagery and relaxation with early stage melanoma patients, showed that after six months these patients had significantly decreased negative mood states and significantly increased natural killer cell activity. Dr.Fawzy’s study reinforced David Spiegel’s findings,published in Lancet in 1989, that showed in a similarly-designed study with breast cancer patients, support groups that taught relaxation and imagery prolonged patients’ lives significantly. (Malignant Melanoma: Effects of Early Unstructured Psychiatric Intervention; Recurrence and Survival 6 Years Later. Archives of General Psychiatry: 1003;50)

In a small study conducted at Oregon Health and Science University published in 2002, 25 women with Stage I and II breast cancer were led through individual hypnotic-guided imagery sessions. During the sessions, the women were encouraged to imagine certain kinds of protective immune system cells — called natural killer cells — finding, destroying, and removing cancer cells. The initial session was taped. The women used the tapes to practice at home 3 times a week for 8 weeks.

Researchers measured the women’s immune function and emotional state 3 times: before the program began, after the 8-week program, and 3 months after the program ended. After combining these results, researchers found that the women had much less depression and higher natural killer cell counts. While the women had more natural killer cells, the activity of those cells was not very different than it had been originally.

In a British study published in 1999, 96 women with newly diagnosed large or locally advanced breast cancer were split into 2 groups. Both groups received traditional cancer care including 6 cycles of chemotherapy, but one group also received relaxation training and guided imagery. The women in the guided imagery group experienced better quality of life and easier expression of emotions than the group receiving only the traditional care.

Mind-Body Therapy, by Ernest Rossi and David Cheek, published in 1988 by W.W. Norton & Company
Molecules of Emotion, The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, by Candace Pert, Ph.D., published in 1997 by Scribner
NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Arthritis Today